A vision of hell descends upon an island idyll

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The Independent US

Prayers mingled with shrieks of terror as the New Year's Eve Mass in Castries, the idyllic port capital of St Lucia, turned into a near massacre. It was the worst tragedy this small island has faced since a hurricane almost wiped it out 20 years ago

Prayers mingled with shrieks of terror as the New Year's Eve Mass in Castries, the idyllic port capital of St Lucia, turned into a near massacre. It was the worst tragedy this small island has faced since a hurricane almost wiped it out 20 years ago

While worshippers were lining up in the aisles to receive Holy Communion, four men with dreadlocks burst into the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and methodically hacked at them with machetes, calmly doused them with kerosene, then turned a flame-thrower on them. Before the 400-strong congregation could overpower the attackers Sister Theresa Egan, an elderly Irish nun, was killed and 13 other people suffered burns or deep gashes or were crushed in a stampede after the altar was set ablaze. The Rev Charles Gaillard's vestments went up in flames, torched by these men who police said ranted that they were Rastafarian prophets, sent by the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie on the last day of the millennium. Witnesses told Inspector Gregory Montoute that they had shouted: "The world is going to end and the time has come for what we have to do. There is so much corruption in the Catholic Church." The week before, crude symbols desecrating the crucifix had been nailed to the basilica's door, church authorities said.

One suspect, a 20-year-old youth, Kim John, was held at the scene by members of the congregation. Three men escaped. Another suspect, Francis Phillip, 34, was tracked down by police, but others are still at large.

Charges are expected to be brought against the arrested pair next week. St Lucia's Prime Minister, Kenny Anthony, vowed to punish the "sick and demonic" men behind the atrocity. Police are strengthening security at Catholic churches throughout the Commonwealth island and a round-the-clock bodyguard will protect the Archbishop of Castries, Kelvin Felix.

"Such acts are not the work of Rastafarians," insisted Ras Bongo Isley, who heads the National Council for the Advancement of Rastafarians in St Lucia. "Real Rastafarians are concerned with peace and love. People who commit such acts in the name of the movement are only abusing its name."

In the sing-song island patois, Theresa John, mother of one of the arrested men, apologised on national radio to the 15,000 St Lucia islanders and lamented the death of Sister Theresa, 72, who had founded breakfast programmes for hungry children.

"I'm feeling so sorry. I do not know what to do or what to say," she said. "I am asking the nation to help me, pray with me. I do not think any mother would want her child to be involved in that kind of thing."

She said Kim had just been released from jail last month after he allegedly set another man on fire during an argument. "He was once a loving child who had taken the wrong road," she whispered.

Monsignor Theophilus Joseph held Mass inside the scorched church where Bibles had smouldered near puddles of blood. "We cannot cure St Lucia by passing more laws in the parliament, or by having more policemen on our streets," he said. "We can cure St Lucia by prayer."

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